Kate’s real competition, famously not dull at all, is her dead mother-in-law, the Real Housewife of Kensington Palace, England’s first reality-television star. In the Panorama interview in 1995, better known as the “Queen of Hearts” interview, Diana uses all the language of a Real World confessional. She takes half the responsibility for the failure of the marriage, but her share of the blame is mostly that she cared too much, loved too much, and felt too much, and acted accordingly. Charles, on the other hand, got annoyed because the photographers wanted pictures only of her, not because of anything she’d done but because of her big and amazing heart. She also confesses to bulimia (and why it’s better than anorexia if you have to be photographed) and self-harm—she’s vague about the details, but it involved her arms and legs. She also suggests that the royals are out to get her, claiming they see her as a “threat of some kind.” Diana set a model of behavior for not only princesses but also for every jilted bachelorette who had the wit to position herself in front of a camera. Without Diana, there would not have been Camille Donatacci Grammer. We might not even have to know about Kelly Killoren Bensimon. Diana defined the role of celebrity princess in such a way that no one could possibly measure up—if, indeed, any person of reasonable sanity would want to live that way.
The aspect of Diana’s legacy that Kate has to contend with has less to do with humanitarian relief than with shifting units. Diana was a real whiz at that; she sold more magazines than basically anyone else ever, and if Perez Hilton had her to deal with, nobody else would ever have got a look in. The first issue of Time magazine that came out after her death had her face on the cover and sold 850,000 copies on the newsstand; its normal sales were 250,000. They put her face on two subsequent issues. This was true in life too: Endlessly chased by the paparazzi, she died before TMZ started, or the scrum would have been even bigger. And if you go to the Taj Mahal today, thirteen years after her death and nineteen years after her visit, you will see a line of tourists waiting to have their picture taken on the bench where she famously sat, looking so pretty and so sad.
Her death, as is well known, caused the greatest constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII, or, to be more accurate, since Edward VIII’s desire to marry a divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson. The queen had never been more unpopular—WHERE IS OUR QUEEN? was one headline, SHOW US YOU CARE another. In London that early September, it felt as though the monarchy were on its last legs. There was also “the Diana Effect”—the end of the British stiff upper lip, showing your feelings, crying in public—it’s thought to be when Britain stopped being Britain and became America.
Kate and William are, at least, more or less the same age: 29. In fact, she’s five months older than he. Diana was 20 when she married the 32-year-old Prince Charles, and that twelve-year age gap always seemed more like 200 years. Also, Diana was famously a virgin when she married Charles, albeit one who had been photographed in a see-through skirt with no slip on underneath. The world knew what was coming on her wedding night—that it might be somewhat traumatic, the virgin and the toothy old guy who didn’t seem to like her very much. (“Whatever ‘in love’ means …”) William and Kate have not only had plenty of other relationships; they have been together for so long that presumably their romantic relationship is already that of a married couple. Maybe she buys special underpants for his birthday, but beyond that, it’s probably all quite consensual and respectful and nice. This is what Kate has to contend with, and basically she is dealing with it by being as respectable as possible. Kate’s modest dresses and glossy hair are very much in keeping with England’s new austerity program, the return to traditional British values that the new government is so keen on. For the official Mario Testino engagement photos, she wore a dress from Reiss, a not very expensive chain shop, from a season ago. The happy couple are asking for charitable donations in lieu of the 6,000-plus wedding presents that Charles and Diana received. She has publicly gotten angry with the paparazzi only once: They surrounded her on her way to work, and her lips got a little pursed. Kate’s model in all this is the queen herself, who, with the exception of the “Annus Horribilis” speech, has never remotely let her guard down in public, and even that was in Latin. Other than that, Elizabeth has been the model of rectitude and thrift in the public eye for over 50 years now. Kate has clearly been paying attention. The true fact of William and Kate is that they are, when the cameras stop snapping, quite dull. That, of course, is their great trick; a quiet abdication, an abdication by ordinariness.